Monday, October 7, 2013
Doing it Right
I wanted to write a follow up to Ron Belgau's piece on LifeSite's interview of Joseph Sciambra.
Joe's story is one of the those pieces of data that needs to be taken into account if we're going to adequately provide for the pastoral needs of LGBTQ people, but it is a story that needs to be taken into account in the right way. LifeSite, not surprisingly, presents Sciambra as if he were a typical gay man and thus presents his story as the gritty, diabolical reality that underlies the sanitized images of gaydom that one finds in the mainstream media.
Sciambra's story is perfect for this. It's horrific. Literally. I write horror. I like The Shining, Lost Highway, Hour of the Wolf, and zombie movies. But by the time that I was halfway through Joe's memoir I had overcome my capacity to handle the content. It's also real, and although it would be politically convenient for me to sweep it under the carpet as if it were a very isolated and bizarre account, that would be just as irresponsible on my part as it is for LifeSite to present the story as if it were the norm. Grappling with Sciambra's experience responsibly involves recognizing that the sadomasochistic porn scene really is a part of the gay community, and that although sexual excess in the gay scene is sometimes overstated by Christians it is also real. How do we address that reality? How do we provide responsible warnings for those who might be at risk of encountering the kind of horrific and predatory community that Sciambra found, while at the same time avoiding alarmism?
This is where I think that Sciambra's account is invaluable. In order to understand why, it is important to ask: what kind of an account is this? What is Sciambra describing? Well, there are a couple of things. The first, is that Sciambra is not a typical gay man. I'm not entirely sure that he's a gay man at all. His story begins as the story of a heterosexual man who develops a keen fixation on heterosexual pornography, proceeds to the use of female prostitutes, and then discovers quite accidentally that whereas you generally have to pay for completely casual sex with a woman, you can get it from other guys for free. He also discovers that if you want to have really violent sex then men will go a lot further, and can handle a lot more, than women. He becomes involved in gay porn largely because he's flattered by the attention of some porn producers who groom him for involvement in sadomasochistic porn shoots and ultimately try to get him involved in a straight snuff film (he gets out of that one.) In all of this he never has a real relationship with another man, never falls in love with a guy, never expresses any particular attraction for other males, and in so far as he continues to have any kind of real relationships they are with women.
This is a story of sex addiction. As a friend of mine who has worked with Sexaholics Anonymous once told me, sex addiction often crosses gender lines. The fact that most of Joseph's partners happen to have been male seems much more opportunistic than preferential. That does not mean that we can just discard this account as being something unrelated to what we're talking about. What Joe's story brings to the fore is that fact that there is a connection between the gay community and sex addiction. In Joe's experience most gay men are like him. That's not surprising: in my experience, most gay men are sexually restrained (likely chaste) and have degrees in theology or classics. It's pretty obvious that that's because I'm a Catholic theology nerd. Equally obviously, Joe's perception of the gay community as a community of sex addicts obsessed with increasingly extreme and intense experiences is a reflection of the fact that if that's what you're looking for, that's who you're going to find. But the more important point is that if that's what you're looking for, there is a thriving scene where you can find it.
We could make the obvious observation here that if that's what you're looking for you can find it in the straight community as well – but I think we may be a little overinclined to strain that point. Joe seems to have looked for it in the straight community first, and found that the gay version was more easily accessible. This is largely speculation, but I imagine the reason for this is pretty straightforward: there are a lot of men out there who would like to have a lot of casual sex with anonymous partners, and there is a relative dearth of women who would like to be anonymous partners to those men. Even women who are promiscuous generally want at least the illusion of a relationship. I think it's probably true that if you want to easily procure free sex from a large number of complete strangers and you don't want to know their names or to talk to them before or after, the gay scene is where it's at.
This means that there is a genuine risk for young gay men who enter the LGBTQ community. Although some aspects of that community are driven by the need for companionship and solidarity between queer men and women, other aspects are driven by a predatory subculture of men who are addicted to sex. It is necessary to equip young men with the tools to recognize and avoid predators, and it is important that the real risks be discussed. This will fail, however, if it is couched within a discourse that is fundamentally homophobic. It's the same problem that many feminists have in trying to teach young women to avoid date rape: too much of feminist discourse assumes that all men are predatory and so women end up ignoring good advice because they're unable to disentangle it from misandronistic hysteria.
Ultimately, though, the most important thing about Sciambra's book is not its horrific depiction of the gay porn industry or its terrifying exposition of sadomasochistic Satanism, but rather the testimony that it bears to the grace of God. Francis recently reminded us that “God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life.” Joseph was someone who was deeply involved in a lifestyle that most of us, gay or straight, would find it hard even to contemplate. He wasn't merely a victim of predation, he was also a participant and in some cases a predatory abuser. He was the kind of person that evokes, in most decent people, a sense of moral disgust – and I think it's fair to say that that person evokes a sense of moral disgust in Joseph Sciambra as well. I can understand that: my past is a lot less extreme, and it took me ten years of pretty intense interior work before I got to the point where I was able to see the good in my past self. What is clear, however, is that God continued to work in his life throughout the entire period where he was behaving in ways that would cause many people to see him as a write-off. It's a reminder of just how deep God's mercy is, and of just how shallow and stupid our judgments are when we imagine that any of His people are something other than Beloved.
Note: Joseph asked me to take a look at his manuscript and offer advice on it before he had a publisher, so I'm not sure to what extent the version that made it to press differs from the text that I read.